I’ve gotten a few questions lately about how to start writing a book or story or essay. For many writers, the blank page or blank screen is a terror and a seemingly insurmountable barrier. So how do you get started?
There are a million substitutes for starting. You can outline, you can puzzle out plot problems, you can research. For years I’ve been wrestling around with a particularly sticky point-of-view problem for a novel that I “want” to write. I put “want” in quotation marks because if I really wanted to write it, I would be writing it instead of wrestling around with point-of-view problems.
So, again, how do you get started? You start wherever you can start. What captured your imagination in the first place? What image or idea made you want to write a particular story or essay? Start writing there, and see what happens. CS Lewis said the Narnia books began with the image of a lamp-post in a forest. He started following that image, and it grew into The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and eventually The Chronicles of Narnia. When I began writing The Bark of the Bog Owl, I started with a scene near the end. But the scene was particularly vivid to me, while the rest of the story was still a little hazy. That scene was a way into the story; as I wrote what I could write, things started to sharpen up from there.
In the case of The Charlatan’s Boy, the first sentence I wrote turned out to be the first sentence of the finished product: “I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born.” I wrote that sentence in a composition book, and the story unspooled from there. But that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
Perhaps the most important thing in writing is to get your pen moving and keep your pen moving. You’ve got to get yourself immersed in the work and trust that good things are going to happen once the neurons start firing. To do that, you have to give yourself permission to write badly. If you sit with your pen poised over the page and wait until perfectly formed sentences present themselves to your mind, you will be sitting there for a long time.
Or maybe not; maybe you’ll sit there a short time and then give up and go fold some laundry or check Facebook again. In any case, you won’t write.
I’m talking here about coming to terms with the inner critic. You know that voice—the one that says, That sentence isn’t good enough. That idea isn’t interesting enough. Nobody’s going to want to read that. People who give writing advice talk about how important it is to silence the inner critic. I get what they mean, but I think it’s more helpful to say, Don’t let the inner critic silence you. We have a name, after all, for people who have successfully silenced the inner critic. We call those people lunatics.
If the inner critic is causing you to experience crippling shame about your failure to write like you want to write, then ok—maybe you should silence the inner critic. Your issue, in that case, goes a lot deeper than writing issues (indeed, a lot of writing issues go deeper than writing issues).
But if at all possible, I suggest that you try this: instead of thinking of the inner critic as your enemy, think of the inner critic is a friend who means well but needs to be told to shut up every now and then. To illustrate a healthy relationship between the writer and the inner critic, I composed the following skit:
The scene opens on a WRITER tapping away at laptop. INNER CRITIC enters and looks over WRITER’s shoulder. INNER CRITIC That sentence isn’t any good. WRITER (cheerfully) Oh, I know. It’s a disaster, isn’t it? WRITER continues tapping away at laptop. INNER CRITIC That idea is pretty obvious, isn’t it? WRITER (patiently) Well, sure. But I’m never going to get to the brilliant ideas if I don’t live with the less brilliant ideas for a little while. Besides, I don’t see you coming up with brilliant, original ideas. INNER CRITIC (petulantly) That’s not my job, is it? WRITER Precisely. WRITER continues tapping away at laptop. INNER CRITIC Nobody’s going to want to read this, you know. WRITER (less patiently) No duh. Nobody ever wants to read a first draft. INNER CRITIC (sullenly) I was just trying to help. WRITER I realize that. And after I get a few pages written and it’s time to edit, you’re going to be a huge help. But right now you’re not helping. If you’ll just go away for a little while, I’ll bring you a big pile that we can work on together. You’ll find tons to criticize, and probably a few things that even you will like. I love what you do. But right now I need some alone time. INNER CRITIC You love what I do? Do you mean that? WRITER Absolutely. Now, run along. Exit INNER CRITIC, buoyantly.WRITER continues tapping away at laptop.
I often tell my students that it’s quicker to write three drafts than to write one. I’m not just being clever. The inner critic is going to make an appearance one way or another (at least you better hope it does). You can wrestle around with the inner critic at the beginning, staring at yawning blankness until a good sentence comes to you, then staring at the next five inches of blankness until another good sentence comes to you, or you can tell the inner critic just to wait a cotton-picking minute while you revel in the freedom to crank out prose that might be terrible or might be brilliant; it’s not your job to determine the quality of the work while you’re writing. You can figure that out later, after you’ve invited the inner critic back into the room (and please, please don’t neglect to invite the inner critic back into the room).
Which brings me to a corollary: If you are comfortable writing badly, you also have to be comfortable throwing away bad writing. I know you might have worked hard for that bad writing. I know it hurts. But there’s always more where that came from. Creativity is not a reservoir, but a river. It keeps flowing. If you keep the pen moving, good things will happen. I know it takes faith to believe that. Have faith. Be of good cheer.